Southeast Mental Health Clinic Returns Home, But Challenges Remain

Nicole Ely

After a nomadic year, the Southeast Child and Family Therapy Center is back in the southeastern part of San Francisco. But it’s still struggling to meet the mental health needs of families in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

The center, which serves clients from Cesar Chavez Street to the Daly City line, was ousted from its Mission Street office in November 2009. While one staff member remained behind in another office on Mission, most clients had to ride transit to Van Ness Avenue for counseling.

Its new location on the second story of a family health center in the Portola is less than ideal, given that half of its clients are from the Excelsior District. Other clients come from Bayview, Visitation Valley, Ingleside, Outer Mission and surrounding neighborhoods.

The center is also shorthanded as the result of a reorganization and budget shortfalls within the city’s Health Department, and has “closed its intake” for the first time. Twenty-eight families – including 15 Spanish-speaking families – are on the waiting list for services.

“We’re down three staffers and, if anything, the need is greater than ever,” said Center Director Ines Ascencio. She said one replacement is in the process of being hired, but a second spot may go unfilled. The third one is simply “unprocessed,” she said.

The clinic is one of three in the city that provide support for issues that ranged from domestic violence and sexual abuse to stress from immigration and behavioral problems. The other centers are located in the Mission District and Chinatown.

“We basically treat people who have no insurance,” Ascensio said. But the center sees patients with coverage through HealthySF, Healthy Families and other programs. "We do not serve people with private insurance in order to be accessible to those who would not get services otherwise."

The clinic's woes reflect a citywide cut to mental health services. Health Director Dr. Mitchell Katz said at a budget meeting earlier in the year that mental health cutbacks always happen in a budget crisis because the clinics don't generate revenue, like General Hospital.

“There is no finite amount to cure a chronic condition,” Katz said at the time. “We can only hope that the budget crisis does not go on, so we won't have to continually cut services.”

Ascensio countered that the entire clinic staff does generate revenue through reimbursements from other programs.

Tom Murphy contributed to this story